Food Security Research Network (FSRN), Thunder Bay

Food Security Research Network

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Access to healthy food   |   Northern ON   |
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Promotion of local food and regional development

In person interview and site visit, Lee-Ann Chevrette


*  University-community partnership initiatives including over sixty community partners to promote agriculture and food security to build a resilient, adaptive, thriving regional food system in northwestern Ontario

*  Central, catalytic organization in the region providing critical support to emerging local food and agricultural organizations

*  Sponsors and manages multiple community garden initiatives, school programs, community service learning students, youth training, First Nations projects including increasing food self-sufficiency, retail outlet focused on northern ‘food from the land or hand’, blueberry marketing analysis, and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative


Organization history

1. The Food Security Research Network (FSRN) is acknowledged as an important catalyst for promoting agriculture and food security in the region which has indirectly helped to support the growth of farm operations and other agri-related initiatives (e.g. small scale farming, community gardens) that have a specific focus on promoting local food production and consumption. There is also growing interest in organic farming in the area and direct marketing activities such as farm retail outlets and farmers markets. Although only recently established, FSRN has become a very important institution for the local agriculture sector. As described by agri-sector stakeholders, FSRN has attracted the interest of and successfully engaged younger people in agri-related activities with a strong emphasis on promoting production activities for the local market. FSRN is credited with fostering optimism for growth in the local agri-sector and local food production activities.(Thunder Bay District Agriculture Impact Study, October, 2009

2. The Food Security Research Network was a key participant in the national Peoples Food Policy Research Project funded by Heifer International. The Project held table talks across the nation to determine what federal policies may facilitate principles of food sovereignty and to provide the framework for a just and sustainable food system in Canada. FSRN launched our first Table Talk at the World Food Day on October 16, 2009. It was a resounding success. FSRN supported the PFPP in two key ways:

2.1 Dr. Mirella Stroink was the Chair of the national committee for developing food policy based on the table talk data from rural and remote communities.

2.2 Lee-Ann Chevrette was our local  Community Food Animator and was the organizer of many table talk initiatives throughout the data gathering phase.

3.  The unique context of building local food systems in underdeveloped and remote areas has resulted in the Food Security Research Network writing the food security and food sovereignty theme paper for the International Forum on the Social and Solidarity Economy: Government and Civil Society Montreal, Quebec (Canada), Palais des congrès, October 17-20, 2011


Organization Overview

Northwestern Ontario offers unique conditions in which to explore the challenges, opportunities and solutions for food security from many different vantages. FSRN strives to bring together the resources and innovation needed to engage in these solutions.  The FSRN began in 2006 with a focus to bring together a unique blend of resources from the academy and the community for the following purposes:

—      Capacity building in socio-economic development towards a northern regional food system

—      Developing resilient, thriving and adaptive local food systems in Northwestern Ontario through community service learning (CSL), graduate student theses and community-based research

—      Giving participants life-influencing experiences in being a symbiotic part of the organic transformation to an ecological focused food system


Physical Infrastructure

FSRN is a large network of over 60 community partners in northern Ontario including: (a) local agriculture organizations (TBARS, TBFA, TBSCIA and Cattlemen’s Association) , farm producers, emergent new farm markets, community gardens, CSA; (b) umbrella First Nations’ organizations Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Mattawa First Nations, Independent First Nations as well as specific communities; (c) schools in the development of school gardens and related curriculum; (d) charitable and social organizations.   Our FSRN Network is based on complex adaptive systems theory which we call the Contextual Fluidity Partnership model.

Since 2006, FSRN has provided the infrastructure support system for faculty in 12 disciplines spanning five academic Faculties – Business, Education, Natural Resource Management, Health and Behavioural Sciences, and Social Sciences and Humanities to deliver a community service learning program that focuses on building capacity in a resilient local food system for Northwestern Ontario. Through the FSRN food security CSL program, knowledge travels back and forth between the classroom and the community, providing all of us with opportunities to learn from each other and from shared experiences.

FSRN employs through the Ontario Work Study Program for both 16 weeks in the summer and during Fall/Winter terms, university students who reach out and assist community groups with their food hub related initiatives.  This has included assistance with programming for wheel chair accessible raised beds gardens for over a dozen group homes for developmentally challenged adults, support for  a community garden project in a urban core area of Thunder Bay, assistance to a First Nation in the development of a viable market for blueberries, assistance in the development of a Cooperative food hub, guidance with market garden training for a fly-in remote First Nation community and support with our FSRN Campus Community garden.

For the last six years, FSRN has promoted local food systems by sponsoring World Food Day where a core message is the importance of local food to allowing countries to produce local food for themselves rather than exclusively for the export market.

The Annual FSRN sponsored Food Forum provides a community gathering for sharing and discussing local food system initiatives. Both the Food Forum and the World Food Day events are attended by faculty, staff, and students from Lakehead University, as well as individuals and organizations from the broader Thunder Bay community.


Natural Resources

Roots to Harvest: An Urban Youth Garden Initiative Punks Growing FoodFSRN initiated through a three year outside grant from the Ministry of Research and Innovation an urban garden that serves high risk youth in the community. We partner with YES employment to hire 10 – 15 young people between the ages of 15 and 18 to work as apprentice market gardeners for July and August. YES employment fully subsidizes the wages of these youth to work with us for six weeks in the summer. Our apprentice market gardeners worked a minimum of two days at this home site then spend the rest of the time working with farms, researchers and community organizations around Thunder Bay. From these experiences, the students learned about soil remediation, the dynamics of growing in northern climates, pest control, weather mapping, GPS plotting, berry production, greenhouse plant production, planting to attract beneficial insects, companion planting, bee keeping, flour milling, fish management and much more. The students also harvested weekly food baskets for three local women with children, through a partnership with the Faye Peterson transitional house. We have developed networks of partners that look forward to our programs, our students, our workshops and our involvement in the food action community here The youth we have worked with continue to be valued food community members. The university community that have mentored the youth have found an eager outlet and an information gap that had previously not been filled. The schools see Roots to Harvest as a valuable resource, and we continue to get requests for workshops.

FSRN Campus Community Garden. This was the third year of food production at the FSRN Campus Community Garden. The garden, which is nestled between the Hangar and the McIntyre River on Lakehead University Campus, is a vibrant garden that combines a 120-plot community garden, with an additional 23 plots, which are allocated for research and demonstration activities. In total, there are 143 garden plots in the garden, the majority of which measure 10’ x 10’. This year the membership climbed to over 80 gardeners, many of whom were returning gardeners who opted to have multiple plots. The garden membership is diverse, and includes faculty, staff and students from Lakehead University, as well as members and organizations from the broader community. A number of community organizations have been involved in the garden. Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) had two plots in the garden. NAN hired a young woman, who is from a remote northern community and currently studying at Lakehead University. It was her first experience with gardening and she enjoyed it tremendously. Superior Science Children’s Camp also participated in the garden. Children from the camp helped to plant, tend and harvest the veggies they grew on their plot. Nanabijou Childcare Centre, located at Lakehead University, also had a plot in the garden, and the children participated in planting, tending, harvesting and eating a diversity of vegetables from their garden plot. Brain Injury Association of Thunder Bay (BIATBA) had six plots in the garden this year. Together with their clients, staff from the BIATBA planted, tended and harvested a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs over the course of the season. BIATBA also facilitated two ‘Art in the Garden’ events where  clients and their friends and families were invited to come to the garden to participate in an art activity with a local artist. Both events were well attended.  This year the garden membership donated their volunteer hours to growing food communally, for donation to the Lakehead University Student Union Food Bank and the Regional Food Disctibution Association. We ran a very successful 4-month gardening workshop series, wherein we brought in local experts to share their knowledge and engage with the gardening community. All workshops were open to the public and were well attended.

FSRN has also provided financial and academic support to a graduate student in the Masters of Environmental Studies (MES) program as she completed a two-year research study on the garden. She explored motivations and benefits of participation, specifically perceived food security, wellbeing, knowledge and connection to nature.

FSRNs Outreach to Building Other Community Gardens. (Regional Community Gardens

Interest has been rapidly spreading in the development of new community, school, church, and individual family gardens both within the city of Thunder Bay and in the region of Northwestern Ontario. The Ogden-Simpson & East End Veggie Garden Project now includes a large six city-lot community garden, alley-way gardens and over two dozen individual family gardens.

The regional Upsala School Garden has incorporated their schoolyard garden into the school curriculum. Examples include: JK/SK – Living and Non-Living Things, Gr. 1 and 2 – Needs and Characteristics of Living Things, Grs. 3/4/5 – Habitats and Communities, Grs. 6/7/8 – Biodiversity and authentic, real-world mathematical problems such as older students calculating the capacity of the raised beds. Participating were the students of the school, the teachers and staff, and the community through Keeping Good Schools Open.

Gardens in Ginoogaming, Aroland, and Constance Lake First Nations are also bringing new options for food security through both cultivated boxes and raised bed gardens and the rediscovering of accessing traditional food sources in the boreal forest.

Download our Regional Gardening Initiatives report for summer 2009.


The Food Security Research Network has launched some pivotal and key economic development initiatives in this area.

1. Through two research grants from FedNor and the Agriculture Adaptation Council, FSRN carried out the marketing research to establish market demand and value food chain information for the establishment of Brule Creek Farm flour mill which in its short existence of 2.5 years has already generated a multiplier effect of 3 for direct employment with Brule Creek and additionally in providing local farmers with another outlet for their grain crops.

2. Through an NOHFC grant, FSRN launched the first CSA operation in Northwestern Ontario located at Boreal Edge Farm.

3. Through a research grant from the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association and from the Thunder Bay Cattlemen’s Association, a consumer marketing study was completed which demonstrates high potential for growth in grass-fed beef in Northwestern Ontario.  Grass-fed beef has been scientifically proven to have high nutrient values.

4.  FSRN assisted Aroland First Nation for two years in developing a viable economic initiative for selling their abundant and very tasty blueberries.  This initiative has become self-sustaining and is now being run by Aroland First Nation.

5. FSRN assisted in the launching of the True North Cooperative which is a non-profit community co-operative selling local food and other regionally produced goods. The goal of True North is to improve the resilience of our community through a stronger localized economy. In order to centralize marketing and storage, we have a downtown storefront in Thunder Bay but our distribution network extends throughout the region of Northern Ontario.

6. We recently completed a chicken abattoir marketing study through a Business course CSL initiative.  Last year, several local farmers were fined by the provincial government for selling chickens at the farm gate.  FSRN seeks to find a solution to this present situation by assisting in the establishment of a local chicken abattoir.

7. A marketing study through our OMAFRA three year grant Determining health benefits, horticultural and market potential of wild blueberry ecotypes from northwestern Ontario which includes research on value-added blueberry products in the Ignace area and with Aroland First Nation.

8. FSRN has an agreement with Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation to facilitate the development of a long term farming program for the community that works toward their objectives of providing food self-sufficiency. This year we provided northern local food system training in establishing a northern market garden.

9. FSRN is assisting in establishing Roots to Harvest as an independent non-profit organization serving youth in gaining skills to contribute to the local food system.


Financial Resources

The Food Security Research Network operates from a diversity of funding sources such as J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, SSHRC, Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, Ontario Cattlemen’s Association, Canadian Council on Learning, Agricultural Adaptation Council, Health Canada’s Aboriginal Contamination provincial and national research programs, and Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

Policy and Program Resources

Connie Nelson states: “While our focus is on working as insiders to the community to build a more resilient local food system, we need to be addressing both municipal and provincial and sometimes even federal policies that are currently constraining the development of the local food system.  In order to effectively work on these policies, we nurture close and active working relationships with Food Secure Canada, Sustain Ontario, CCEDNet, People’s Food Policy Project, and Farm Start.”  In order to have some immediate models of success, some of FSRN’s early socio-economic developments were focused in areas where they could build capacity without having to secure policy changes.  Examples are starting the first local flour mill, a CSA, a large community garden, a film Northern Grown highlighting local system entrepreneurs, supporting the publication of a short growing season northern garden book etc.  Now that we have established these initiatives and these local food system businesses have become mentors for the region, we are moving into more challenging initiatives that involve policy issues such as approval for a local poultry abattoir, changes in the provincial quota system for laying hens, organic food labels, and food processing needs.


Desired Assets

There is a need for a significant shift in both federal and provincial funding to encourage economic activity that is socially driven to support a resilient local food system.  FSRN sees a critical need for revamping the agri-industrial funding system to allow more opportunity for individuals and organizations to be eligible for funding a local food system that aims to integrate health, sustainability and the economy.  Connie Nelson reflects “This funding shift is key to having local food produced, harvested, distributed and processed through ecological practices that build resilience.   Our current silos of having nutrition discussed by health and production by agriculture is putting a brake on the development of local food systems based on values of local nutritious foods that put dollars back into the hands of local producers and provide the consumers with quality nutritious food.”



In the north we need to build production capacity in areas that may not be ‘new development’ for southern parts of the province, but are very new to us.  If we are going to shift from transporting foods over a 1000 km from southern Ontario then we need to investigate processing and production in unique northern situations.  Moreover, some of our niche markets are sometimes not considered foods like blueberries and mushrooms.  Connie Nelson states, “I have had many discussions on this issue with potential funders.”

There are many challenges to developing a vibrant local food system for our northern First Nation communities (~ 60).  Traditional food systems have been undermined by generational loss of knowledge during the residential school system era, industrial development that has contaminated the natural land base, the reserve system itself that concentrates population and thus puts pressure on existing food resources, the high cost of transportation and the limited transportation options like air and winter roads. Post residential school has been characterized by a culture of expecting outside mainstream society food sources to be better than local sources.  The Food Security Research Network provides training for First Nation communities that wish to enhance an integrated system of local food sources and cultivated gardens.



FSRN works from an inside the community perspective in spawning regional socio-economic development.  Relationship building and trust are essential before successful collaborations can occur that support building a local food system.  It is important to focus early on building capacity.  The switch from an agri-industrial system to a local food system is revolutionary in its impact on how we eat and what we eat. In order to extend the availability of local food, there needs to be a multiple approach to preserving and processing local food for local distribution.

First Nations’ local food system issues need to be approached through blended cultivated and boreal forest food sources.

The Food Security Research Network and the Community Service Learning program is in itself a new way of addressing food security, coupling university resources – faculty, students and staff – with dedicated Northwestern Ontario partners in a Contextual Fluidity Partnership Model designed to foster growth in knowledge.

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